There’s a stillness that fills the air when two predators are near each other. Some days it feels as if the world watches with bated breath for the outcome, knowing one life must be forfeit. Such are the rules of the hunt which I pitted myself against each October and it was a game I played well.
I’d been tracking her for more than three days over some of the toughest wilderness I’d ever been through, long enough that I knew her paw prints by sight and had a basic idea for her routine. Eat and move. Bears as big as her focused primarily on food, storing as much as they could for the upcoming winter, and I could already feel the bitterness in the air that told me she didn’t have much time left. The nights had grown colder and the leaves looked like they’d just begun to have been touched with the painters brush.
I had hoped to catch up to her by the middle of the third day and had already given the bear a name; Caitlyn, after my ex-wife. Somehow it made my kills more therapeutic and when I took that final shot, I could almost feel the tension being released from the world like a coiled spring.
I had always seen the similarity between the hunt and life. The sharp report of the rifle signaling a coming change, the moment of truth when fate was unavoidable, and then the inevitable impact. Destiny, like the trajectory of a copper-jacketed bullet, was often difficult to change and when a life was being given up, the world sighed. It was the same emotion when I finally removed my finger from the trigger. It was destiny set in motion.
Thus, I was perplexed when I noticed her tracks change. Instead of her casual gait, her prints began to spread out as if Caitlyn went from a walk to a dead sprint. This didn’t bode well for me since a healthy bear could run for almost sixty kilometers before they got tired. If she ran too far, I’d lose her for good and there just wasn’t any more time left to pursue her. Had she caught wind of me?
I followed for a few more miles, watching with a sinking heart that she never seemed to let up. Then I noticed something odd. A second set of prints following the first except these looked like they belonged to a barefoot man.
Not just a man, a child.
I studied those prints for what felt like an hour, trying to make sense of what I was seeing. There was no doubt the child’s prints overlapped that of the bear. Both were recent and I could sense the bear was panicked. She didn’t rear up at any point. She just ran and inexplicably, the child followed. Not just followed; hunted.
I almost turned back then.
A running bear could never be caught in time, I thought, but I knew it wasn’t true. I could catch her but what about the child? What was someone that young doing out here where even men feared to venture too far? This was true wilderness and not even I went barefoot.
I followed, partly motivated by a smoldering curiosity and partly from the stubbornness that cost me my marriage. It was a vice and virtue in one, two sides to a tarnished coin. Still, no matter how hard I pressed, the tracks never let up. No man could keep pace with a bear and yet it appeared that was exactly what happened.
Then I saw her in a clearing. She was as beautiful as I imagined; nearly 400 pounds of muscle and fury contained within an auburn coat. I brought my rifle to bear, squinting through my scope for signs of trouble and yet all I could see were parts of her flank concealed behind a large tree. Worse, I saw blood.
My instinct kicked in and fearing for the safety of the child, I shot once. It wasn’t meant to be a kill shot, merely a warning to wound the bear away from whatever fool wandered too far into these dangerous woods, yet the bear didn’t react. Worse, the wound didn’t even bleed.
I crept closer to the clearing, my heart threatening to escape through my chest. At best, someone had poached my kill, but the alternative was unthinkable. I expected a tangle of pale skin, glassy eyes staring accusingly up at me, but I only found Caitlyn. Her stomach was open and the sheen of sweat told me she had been running hard. Not hard enough. Neither were there any sign of my barefooted prodigy. Either way, it was time to leave.
It was only when I calmed my nerves that I recognized the hush in the air, as if the world was holding its breath. A few paces back the way I came confirmed what I had suspected; a small set of bare footprints matching my own. Once more, the spring was coiled and I knew by the end of the day, another life would be forfeit. Still, I knew the rules to this game and I would not prove to be such an easy catch.